The Russian Submarine Fleet Reborn

By Lieutenant Commander Tom Spahn, U.S. Navy Reserve

The Russian nuclear submarine fleet, once the pride of the Soviet Navy and scourge of U.S. war planners, has been reduced to an embarrassment as dozens of mighty nuclear boats have languished for decades, slowly rotting pierside. Numerous publicly available photographs show rows of once-proud Akula- and Typhoon-class submarines, long the U.S. Los Angeles –class’s arch-nemeses, reduced to decrepit hulks, deteriorated far beyond seaworthiness. Even many American submariners, who spent their careers honing skills necessary to seek and destroy these potential enemies, can’t help but feel a twinge of remorse at the sorry state of their rivals—alpha predators of the deep left to wither in captivity. However, new designs and construction projects are revitalizing the core of Russia’s undersea nuclear arsenal.

Russian nuclear submarine-design activity in the past decade has primarily trended toward a consolidation of capabilities from a wide range of specialized classes filling discrete roles, to multi-mission submarines capable of accomplishing a broad range of tasking. 1 Thus, the future Russian nuclear submarine fleet will consist of only two classes, the Borei-class ballistic-missile submarine and the Yasen-class fast-attack sub.

A North Wind from the East

As many as ten Borei (or “North Wind”) submarines are scheduled to provide a cost-effective solution for Russia’s future nuclear-deterrence requirements, eventually replacing the aging Delta IIIs, IVs, and monstrous Typhoon missile boats by 2020.

The lead boat of the class, the Yury Dolgoruky , has endured a long and rocky road to active service. In production since 1996, the project suffered a lengthy redesign process when the Russian Navy abandoned its originally planned primary armament, the R-39UTTH “Bark” intercontinental ballistic missile, which had been designed in parallel with the submarine itself. 2 After a substantial reworking to accommodate the more sophisticated RSM-56 “Bulava” missile, the program endured further delays when the Bulava suffered a series of embarrassing failures, ultimately achieving an unimpressive 9-for-16 record during testing. 3 Finally, in January 2013, the Bulava entered service and, due to its smaller size compared to the Bark, the Boreis are able to carry 16 missiles, four more than the originally planned 12. Unconfirmed reports indicate that a future improved variant of the Borei will gain an additional four missile tubes; however, other sources dispute this possible improvement. 4

Despite its challenges, the Borei emerged as an impressive platform. Although at approximately 558 feet long and displacing 24,000 tons submerged she is far less visually striking than the gigantic Typhoon she will replace, the Borei contains the best of modern submarine technology, including advanced sound-silencing and pump jet propulsion similar to that found on the U.S. Virginia class. The Borei also boasts an impressive price-tag, costing just 23 billion rubles ($890 million) per hull, a bargain compared to approximately $2 billion for a new U.S. Ohio -class submarine. 5

Like its launch platform, the Bulava missile also represents a dramatic leap forward in technology. Similar to its land-based variant, the Topol-M SS-27, to thwart evolving Western ballistic-missile-defense shields, the Bulava can conduct evasive post-launch maneuvers and deploy a variety of countermeasures and decoys to defend against interception. Its ten hypersonic, independently maneuverable warheads are protected against both physical and electromagnetic-pulse damage to ensure that they can reach their targets intact. 6

In a way, the Borei represents a literal rebirth of the Soviet submarine fleet; several boats in the class are being constructed partially from the hulls of scrapped or unfinished Akulas and Akula IIIs. 7

An Ash Tree with Soviet Roots

With its air power desperately eroded, Russia has placed an increasing burden on its submarine fleet to close the widening sea-control capability gap with NATO. The cornerstone component of this strategy, the Yasen (or “Ash Tree”) fast-attack submarine class fills antisubmarine, antisurface, and tactical land-attack roles, replacing both the Akula-class fast-attack submarines and the Oscar-class guided-missile boats.

The Yasen program can trace its origins back to the Soviet era, but after repeated setbacks and delays, production finally began in 1993, with completion originally scheduled for 1998. By 1999, however, reports indicated that shipbuilders had only completed 10 percent of the lead ship. 8 With the Borei-class program receiving priority funding, production again fell behind, and the first Yasen finally launched in September 2011, with planned entry into active service slipping to summer 2013. Work on a second hull began in 2009 with completion scheduled for 2014; however, costs have allegedly ballooned from approximately $1.5 billion for the lead boat to $3 billion for the second, jeopardizing the entire program. 9 Although the third hull has yet to be laid down as of January 2013, Russia has ordered four more for delivery scheduled by 2016. 10

Despite the delays over the decades, it appears that the submarine’s designers have kept pace with technological advances in the interim. For example, the crew size has reportedly shrunk to a complement of around 90 sailors, revealing a high degree of automation. 11 By comparison, even the sophisticated American Virginia class requires a crew of 134. The Yasen also has incorporated advanced sound-silencing techniques that evolved over the life of the Akula class, making her far quieter than her predecessors. Supposedly, the submarine is equipped with Russia’s first spherical-array sonar system, with slanted torpedo tubes to accommodate the extra hydrophones, but some analysts doubt the accuracy of these claims and speculate that she actually retains a cylindrical array. 12

While the technological advances are impressive, the Yasen’s armament makes her truly terrifying. She bristles with eight 25.6-inch torpedo tubes capable of launching the supercavitating VA-111 “Schval” torpedo, Russia’s “carrier killer.” The tip of the rocket-propelled Schval creates a cavitation bubble before it, which the weapon rides to reach speeds in excess of 200 knots, many times faster than a conventional torpedo. 13 Although at those speeds active acoustic guidance systems would be ineffective, such guidance is not required—a target would have little or no time to react and take evasive action even if it heard the launch transient. Furthermore, although reports conflict as to whether the capability currently exists, the original Schval design accommodated a nuclear warhead, adding the power to annihilate even the largest aircraft carriers without warning, with a single shot.

The Yasen can also launch a variety of cruise missiles, including the SS-N-26 “Onyx” and the SS-N-27 “Klub” series from either its eight vertical-launch tubes or torpedo tubes. 14 The Klub series multi-role missile system boasts a diverse range of capabilities, with the 3M54E (terminal-supersonic) and 3M54E1 (subsonic) variants filling antiship roles, 91RE1 for antisubmarine attacks, and the 3M14E capable of accomplishing land-attack missions. 15 Arguably the most advanced submarine-launched variant, the primarily subsonic 3M54E “Sizzler,” can likely defeat many Western missile-defense shields through a series of protective measures, such as a sea-skimming cruise stage combined with a warhead that separates from the body of the missile and carries out its terminal attack at supersonic speeds. 16 The formidable “Onyx,” on the other hand, cruises at supersonic speeds to conduct sea-skimming antiship attacks at ranges up to 186 miles. 17

In a first for nuclear warships, shortly after the launch of the lead Yasen, India entered into a ten-year lease for an Akula II–class nuclear fast-attack submarine. It remains unclear if Moscow intends to expand this program as more Yasens come online to replace aging Akulas, but this would follow the dangerous precedent set by the widespread export of Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines.

Building on the Kilo’s Legacy

In addition to substantial investment in its nuclear fleet, Moscow plans to significantly expand the capability of its diesel boats. Although seeming at least conversationally less worrying than their nuclear sisters, diesel submarines pose an enormous strategic threat to world peace and stability. Diesel-electric submarines do not require constantly operating reactor-cooling pumps or other noisy equipment to service their nuclear-propulsion plants and are therefore, when running on batteries, virtually undetectable even by the most advanced sonar systems. Moreover, exported Russian diesel submarines are popular among nations worldwide. Optimized for littoral operations, these boats are perfect low-cost tools for regimes to threaten sea lines of communication off their nations’ coasts. Even the threat of a diesel submarine lurking just offshore in a critical strait could significantly disrupt international maritime commerce and provide substantial leverage for even a relatively weak nation to use against its neighbors.

The Lada-class diesel-electric submarine (sometimes referred to as the Saint Petersburg class after the name of the lead ship) follows in the footsteps of her incredibly successful predecessor, the Kilo class. Although the Lada, like her nuclear counterparts, has suffered numerous delays and setbacks, her capabilities eclipse the Kilo in every category. She is lighter, faster, and although not confirmed, may incorporate an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system. In development for decades but only recently sufficiently safe for widespread acceptance, AIP systems use an electrical storage system such as hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells to allow a diesel submarine to operate and charge batteries without accessing atmospheric air. This gives a submarine equipped with such a system a dramatic advantage over previous generations by mitigating the diesel boat’s Achilles’ heel—the need to snorkel while running her diesel engine to charge her batteries. If the Lada class does employ an AIP system as suspected, her submerged endurance would increase drastically from 15 up to as many as 45 days. 18

To reduce manning requirements, and likely increase her export marketability, the Lada utilizes a new automated combat system. Leveraging this upgrade and further capitalizing on the worldwide demand for Kilos, Moscow has planned to build a variant of the Lada specifically for export, the “Amur.” 19 The Lada/Amur will likely continue the legacy of the Kilo, which because of her widespread proliferation, necessitated a fundamental shift in worldwide naval strategy. Now a hostile government need not undertake the lengthy and enormously expensive process of amassing a large surface fleet to pose a significant threat to major sea lines of communication. Rather, for the relatively low price of around $300 million, even a small nation with a single submarine operating off its shores can dramatically alter the strategic balance of a region. China, the proud owner of at least ten Kilos, has already ordered four Amur-class submarines from the Russian Navy. 20 The thought of several of these nearly undetectable threats lurking in the South China Sea, armed with Sizzler missiles, surely causes military planners developing strategies to protect Taiwan from a Chinese incursion a great deal of anxiety.

A Threat Worthy of Concern?

While the revitalization of the Russian Navy’s submarine fleet may not, in and of itself, be of particular concern, especially with the numerous setbacks and challenges the programs have faced, one must consider these developments in light of Russia’s increasingly aggressive geopolitical posturing. Several embarrassing incidents involving Chinese submarines appearing, undetected, shockingly close to American carrier strike groups have generated major news headlines in recent years. Meanwhile, perhaps overshadowed by domestic events, Russian submarines have engaged in no less daring escapades with little fanfare. Although Moscow has made no attempt to conceal the fact that it plans to accelerate submarine operations, the audacity of some recent patrols exemplifies a troubling trend. In late 2012, an Akula allegedly remained undetected for several weeks while conducting operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Later that same year, a Sierra-2-class guided-missile submarine crept within a mere 200 miles of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. In the Mediterranean, Russian submarines have similarly increased operations, likely including participation in a massive naval exercise off the coast of Syria in January 2013.

In addition to the provocative nature of this increased submarine activity, Moscow has repeatedly engaged in symbolically threatening gestures. For example, the launch of the Yury Dolgoruky , the lead ship of the Borei class, coincided with the aforementioned naval exercise off Syria’s Mediterranean shore. At the event, the deputy prime minister of military industries did not exactly help ease any apprehension when he wrote on Twitter, apparently tongue-in-cheek, “You bourgeoisie tremble! You are screwed!” 21 One doubts whether Western military commanders got the joke. Meanwhile, in the Arctic, while planting a flag under the ice may have served as little more than a somewhat comical publicity stunt, it certainly did little to soothe fears that Russia may revive Soviet expansionist tendencies.

Although some of this aggressive posturing makes it seem increasingly doubtful, perhaps (and hopefully) Russia and the United States truly can, as President Obama suggested, hit the “reset” button on rather chilly relations. However, even if the two nations can improve the damaged relationship, there is no indication that Russia will halt exports of some of its most advanced submarines to the rest of the world, regardless of the regime in power. Because of this activity, the rebirth of the Russian submarine force, although progressing more haltingly than the Chinese Navy’s rise, will likely have significantly farther-reaching, more severe, and frighteningly unpredictable consequences for world stability.

Diesel Distractions, Nuclear Rumblings

Since the potential threat from both Russian diesel-electric and nuclear submarines will almost certainly continue to grow, the United States must stand ready at all times to counter either of these platforms if necessary. Though initially caught somewhat off-guard by the rapid proliferation of Russian-built diesel boats, U.S. commanders have aggressively taken steps to recover the initiative. The Naval Mine and Antisubmarine Warfare Command (NMAWC), charged to act as an “AntiSubmarine Warfare (ASW) Center of Excellence,” has answered the call, developing critical doctrine and tactics and providing the numbered fleet commanders with the new technologies and strategies they need to understand and respond to these stealthy new diesel adversaries. However, after decades without facing a credible threat, the Navy risks allowing its ability to respond to nuclear-submarine activity to languish.

One particular deficiency may serve as a warning of this danger, or may merely represent an opportunity for further improvement. In either case, it requires urgent action. Since nuclear submarines can linger submerged essentially indefinitely nearly anywhere in the ocean, prosecuting these potential threats requires effective worldwide coordination and employment of thinly spread assets. This daunting task falls to theater ASW watch officers (TASWOs), a role typically filled by the Navy Reserve. For training, the cadre of reserve officers who stand this watch typically only participate in one two-week Fleet exercise incorporating ASW maneuvers per year, supplemented by classroom training during one weekend per month. Notionally, NMAWC has responsibility for coordinating Fleet-wide TASWO training and qualification; however, little, if any, communication occurs between NMAWC and the ASW reserve units spread across the country. To date, no effective nationwide coordination or standardization of training materials or practices exists, and therefore reserve officers qualified or seeking TASWO qualification often use inadequate and outdated training resources to maintain and improve their proficiency between exercises.

Despite these problems, in peacetime the Navy Reserve submarine force does manage to provide adequately trained TASWOs to fulfill its theater ASW responsibilities. However unlikely the event of a conflict involving widespread use of nuclear submarines, the time and training required to rapidly improve from adequacy to expertise could leave the United States at a significant disadvantage. To reduce this risk, a relatively modest effort now to improve NMAWC’s coordination with ASW reserve units in order to maximize the value of limited training opportunities will pay enormous dividends in the future.

Although in isolation one may argue that any disadvantage created by a temporary deficiency in theater ASW expertise could likely be remedied relatively quickly, the more pressing question is whether the training shortfall represents the beginning of a dangerous trend of Navy leadership overlooking critically important skills necessary to combat future nuclear-submarine threats. If so, looming budget cuts and ongoing force reductions will no doubt feed the temptation to focus dwindling resources solely on the immediate pressing threat from widespread use of diesel-electric submarines.

While the potential threat from Russian-built diesel boats certainly continues to grow at an alarming rate, U.S. commanders still cannot forget that while these highly capable and stealthy warships grab headlines as favored bargaining tools of rogue regimes, elsewhere their fearsome nuclear sisters slip silently into service in the hands of a former enemy. Thus, the Navy must relentlessly strive to improve its capabilities to remain ever ready to answer the challenge of oceans teeming with inexpensive but deadly diesel boats. At the same time, if not careful to preserve the precious skills that a generation of submariners honed to deadly perfection while facing nuclear adversaries on the front lines of the Cold War, by the time we realize that we need them, it may be too late.

1. Vladimir Karnazov, “Russia Starts New Submarines, Upgrades Indian Kilos,” Defense Review Asia , 22 October 2012, .

2. Patrick Garrett et. al, “935 Borei,” Federation of American Scientists, 13 July 13 2000, . Richard Weitz, “Global Insights: Russia Revitalizes its Submarine Deterrent,” World Politics Review , 15 January 2013, .

3. Agence France-Presse, “Successful Launch for Bulava Missile, Russia,” DefenseNews , 27 August 2011, .

4. “Russia to Start Building 2 Nuclear Borei Super-Subs in 2013,” RT News, 12 January 2013, . “Later Borey Class Subs to Carry Only 16 Missiles – Source,” RIA Novosti , 20 February 2013, .

5. Garrett, “935 Borei.” Robert Tilford, “Russia’s Newest Two Borei Class Ballistic Submarines to be put in Service,” , 19 April 2012, .

6. Lester Haines, “Russian ICBM Test Ends in Premature Splashdown,” The Register , 8 September 2006, . James Dunnigan, “Battling the Bulava Bull,” Strategy Page , 22 September 2007, . Viktor Litovkin, “Bulava Ushers in a New Era in Russia’s Strategic Naval Nuclear Forces,” Russia Beyond the Headlines , 26 July 2011, . “Russia Launches Serial Production of Bulava Missiles to Minimize US Missile Defense Efforts,” Pravda , 12 February 2008.

7. Thomas Nilsen, “New Subs Made of Old Spare Parts,” Barents Observer , 27 October 2011, .

8. John Pike, “Project 885 Yasen/Graney/Granay Severodvinsk Class,”, 19 March 2012, .

9. Charles Digges, “Skyrocketing Costs of Launching ‘New’ Nuclear Submarine Flex Muscles Russia Does Not Have,” Bellona , 14 August 2012, .

10 Trude Pettersen, “Three Submarines Soon Ready for Service,” Barents Observer , 22 November 2012, .

11. Charles Digges, “Shaky Severodvinsk Nuclear Sub Sets to Sea for Trials – Again,” Bellona , 11 May 2012, .

12. Oleg Nekhai, “The Severodvinsk: Stealthily Prowling After Aircraft Carriers,” The Voice of Russia , 2 February 2011, . “Global Naval Submarines Market 2011–2021: Yasen/Graney Class Submarine—Russian Federation,”, . Eric Wertheim, The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World , 15th Edition, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007).

13. John Pike, “VA-111, Schval Underwater Rocket,” Federation of American Scientists, 3 September 2009, .

14. Ria Novosti, “Three Nuclear Subs to Join Russian Navy by Year End,” Missile Threat , 23 April 2013, .

15. “The Klub Missile Family,” Defense Threat Information Group, May 2005, .

16. Tony Capaccio, “Navy Lacks Plan to Defend Against ‘Sizzler’ Missile,” Bloomberg , 23 March 2007, .

17. John Pike, “3M55 Oniks/P-800 Yakhont/P-800 Bolid/SS-N-26,”, .

18. “Project 677 Lada Class, Project 1650 Amur Class, Diesel-Electric Torpedo Submarine,” Federation of American Scientists, .

19. Karnazov, “Russia Starts New Submarines.”

20. Kenneth Rapoza, “After a Decade-Long Wait, China and Russia Ink ‘Super Jet’ Military Deal,” Forbes , 25 March 2013, .

21. Vladimir Isachenkov, “New Russian Nuclear Submarine Enters Service,” Associated Press, 10 January 2013, .

Lieutenant Commander Spahn, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval Nuclear Power School, served as a junior officer on the Los Angeles –class fast-attack submarine USS Chicago (SSN-721). He also served as a staff officer at U.S. 3rd Fleet Headquarters, where he assisted in designing the antisubmarine-warfare portion of carrier strike-group certification exercises. As a member of the Navy Reserve, he qualified as a theater antisubmarine-warfare officer for the 7th Fleet.


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